Just a short six years later, wrapping up work on the front porch

There are these particular, rare moments when the sheer length of time we’ve been living in and working on this house comes into sharp relief. Two of them have smacked us in the face in just the last month or so as we’ve put the finishing touches on rooms or projects that were started back when it all began in November 2010.

It’s always nice to finish a project, whether it’s a small one-off project, or part of a greater whole.

But when I got done staining the new front porch decking earlier this week, Rachel and I both took a look around to admire it. And then there followed an almost a palpable feeling that struck us: “Hey, the front porch is actually done. We just finished everything we set out to do back when we bought the house and it looked like this:”

Where it all began

Back in spring 2011 as the weather warmed up, we had to do a ton of work to that yard just to even reach the porch to figure out what the heck we needed to do to it.

So off came the ivy. Down came the fence. Out went the two once-small shrubberies that had grown into annoyingly-large trees.

With the yard cleared out we had a long list of what we needed to do to the porch. I mean, it was a long list, but it wasn’t SIX-and-a-half YEARS long:

  • Rotted old railing and spindles that were falling apart.
  • Old grey paint on stairs and parapets to be stripped off entirely.
  • Repaint front joist; green lattice; gross beige paint on columns and porch; turquoise paint on ceiling; beige paint around window trim
  • Decrepit old porch light that didn’t match the house
  • Nasty old tongue and groove decking that had been painted too many times and likely needed to be replaced entirely.

After redoing the yard into something decent for that first spring season, I think the first thing I did was strip and pressure wash all the old paint on the concrete steps and that front joist. I remember about a solid week in early 2011 of putting stripper on the steps before work, and then coming home at the end of the day and scraping paint off and then pressure washing whatever was left behind.

(before and after)

Once we got all the paint removed from the steps and repainted the entire porch (ceiling, outer trim, etc.), things were looking pretty good that first spring.

Well, things were looking pretty good by spring 2011, except for the porch decking and especially those railings.

One day, with little plan for replacing it anytime soon, I ripped out the front railing.

I think I remember us being nervous that someone was going to lean on it and it would just give way into the front yard. I guess we thought that just falling into the front yard without the surprise of first leaning into an unstable railing seemed like a better option, because the front porch stayed like this for months.

That nasty decking did get painted during the lead paint bonanza of 2012-2013, so at least the porch looked a little better for a time. (And now I’m remembering that the lead paint inspection may have been what actually prompted removing the railing.)

In one of my more hilariously optimistic moves, during the week we were literally gutting the kitchen in 2010, I found a matching replacement top rail for the front porch at Community Forklift in pretty good condition. I think it stayed in the backyard until it started rotting and I eventually cut it into pieces and put it in the firepit sometime in 2013 or 2014. Well, at least we got our $3.99 or whatever out of it or, I suppose — it kept us warm for an hour.

Instead of that salvaged railing, I ended up buying brand new pieces to build one from Galliher and Huguely and installed that since it seemed somehow safer than not having a railing entirely? And once again, it stayed this way for months while I tried to figure out how I wanted to do the spindles.

The problem with the spindles was wanting to match the original railing (and my neighbors’), which have very narrow spindles. No one carries spindles that narrow, so they have to be ripped down custom. After one false start trying to get that done, I finally relented and decided I could make it look similar enough by just using the square spindles and spacing them closer together than you would on a standard deck railing. (Enduring lesson for us on home renovations — don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the really-very-good-and-totally-suitable. Other folk with more time on their hands or a home with more historic touches may disagree.)

In spring 2015, I finally took on the big job of replacing the old decking.

It was rotting in places, and rather than replacing the worst pieces and trying to salvage it, I opted to just rip the entire thing out and put down 5/4 PT decking. I flirted with tongue and groove or composite stuff, but opted for the simplicity of simple decking.

I just laid the circular saw into the deck and started cutting the old decking out entirely, leaving just the joists behind. Though I did get to leave my random handrail with no spindles from two years earlier in place.

I reinforced the joists in a few places to make sure it would carry the load for decades to come.

With the joists in place, running the decking for this one went pretty fast. All done in one day, if I remember right.

I changed up the design from what you usually see on the house flips that have 5/4 decking on them and put a cap board on the side against the house and at the front of the deck to give a more finished look where you don’t see the cut end of the boards. Doing so also made 8-foot boards juuuust the right length.

With the decking wrapped, I turned to building all three of the railings. This was the most monotonous part of the project, since I didn’t buy individual balusters — I bought 12-foot lengths of the material and had to chop each one to length and then miter the bottom end slightly at a small angle — the drip cap/bottom railing is angled slightly so water will roll off of it.

I think I had to measure and cut around 90 spindles total for the three railings and then attach ’em, which I think I did with small GRK finish screws on top and bottom. They were spaced out just by the width of one spindle in between.

I added a piece of trim below the top rail on both sides to make it look more substantial (and also cover the screw holes for driving each spindle into the top rail.) The bottom holes were filled and sanded before being painted.

As you can see, that spacing is closer together than you’d normally see on a typical back deck or other deck using square spindles like these. This helped mimic the conventional look on most other Petworth rowhouses with wooden railings, even though these spindles are wider than almost all of those.

A few weeks later, I painted all of the railings in our typical white which matches the upper part of the porch. (Painting balusters is one of the worst, most tedious things ever. Shoulda painted them before installing them!)

With that done, we had the deck basically finished, save for some sort of paint or stain for the floor. I knew I’d probably wait at least a year to let it weather — with the little sun that the front gets, it would probably stay damp with PT chemicals for longer than a normal deck would.

Turns out we “decided” to wait almost two years instead.

When I built the back deck in spring 2016, we knew we would definitely try to stain it that fall. As we picked out a stain color and treatment for the back, we found one we liked for the front and ended up lucking into a hefty Sherwin-Williams sale to get the stain for both jobs at once. We settled on their semi-transparent waterborne stain, though I’m reconsidering using a different product in the back after doing some asking around about the quality of that particular SW product. (Front color is Mountain Ash, I think?)

I ran out of good weather last fall to do both decks, but with the (very) early arrival of spring in DC in February 2017, I seized the early opportunity last weekend, renting a pressure washer and cleaning and treating both decks (and the entire front of the house) last Saturday.

Though staining the back deck will take an entire Saturday at some point, the front was pretty small and simple. While working at home this week, I took advantage of a 70-degree day to crank out the front porch over my lunch break.

And just like that, on the last day of February 2017, six years after starting work on it, the front porch was finally completed. (We replaced the porch light back near Christmas, which was maybe Rachel’s #1 priority for the front of the house for the better part of five years. I aim to please.)

Hard to believe that it took us about six years, but the front porch is finally how we’d imagined it would be when we bought this place in 2010.

And as it was back in May 2011 after ripping out the fence and replanting the garden for the first time.

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